Solitude has become a topic of fascination in modern Western societies because we believe it is a lost art – often craved, yet so seldom found. It might seem as if we ought to walk away from society completely to find peaceful moments for ourselves. Yet there is a quote I really like from the book Solitude: In Pursuit of a Singular Life in a Crowded World (2017) by the Canadian journalist Michael Harris:
I don’t want to run away from the world – I want to rediscover myself within it. I want to know what happens if we again take doses of solitude from inside our crowded days, along our crowded streets.
Steadily, slowly, research interest in solitude has been increasing. Note, solitude – time alone – is not synonymous with loneliness, which is a subjective sense of unwanted social isolation that’s known to be harmful to mental and physical health.
In contrast, in recent years, many observational studies have documented a correlation between greater wellbeing and a healthy motivation for solitude – that is, seeing solitude as something enjoyable and valuable.
But, by itself, this doesn’t prove that seeking solitude is beneficial. In science, to make such a causal statement, we’d need to isolate ‘solitude’ as the only variable, while holding other alternative explanations constant. That’s a difficult challenge. In daily life, we spend time alone while also doing other things, such as working, grocery shopping, commuting, taking a walk, learning a hobby or reading a book. Arguably, with so many variations in the ways that people spend time alone, it is difficult to make a definitive statement that it is solitude per se that enhances our wellbeing.
By conducting experimental studies – in which volunteers spent time in controlled conditions in solitude or with others – a team of researchers, led by the clinical psychologist Netta Weinstein, now at the University of Reading, and me, overcame the shortcomings of the correlational research, shedding light on what solitude is really good for.
How people’s emotions changed after spending time alone?
In one series of studies, we looked at how people’s emotions changed after spending time alone. We measured positive emotions associated with high arousal, such as excitement and energization, and positive emotions that are low in arousals, such as calmness and relaxation; we also measured high-arousal negative emotions, such as anger and anxiety, and low-arousal negative emotions, such as loneliness and sadness. By covering both poles of what psychologists call ‘affective valence’ (positive vs negative) and ‘affective arousal’ (high vs low), we demonstrated that time spent alone offers a unique opportunity for ‘arousal regulation’ – that is, both positive and negative forms of high arousal drop lower when we spend time alone. We called this the ‘deactivation effect’.
While the deactivation effect was consistent across all the solitude and alone conditions that we devised, changes in low-arousal positive and negative affects depended on how motivated a person was to spend time alone.
If volunteers embraced and enjoyed solitude for its benefits, they tended to experience an increase in positive low-arousal emotions – ie, to feel more relaxed and calm afterward – but if people didn’t value spending time alone, they were more likely to experience an increase in negative low-arousal emotions – ie, to feel sad and lonely.
This means that, in order to gain more from spending time alone, it is important to be open to the benefits that solitude can bring. For many people now experiencing restrictions on their movements and their social lives, it will be a lonely time; for some of us, it might be a chance to try experiencing the benefits of unexpected solitude. While it might not improve our life as a whole, it can make momentary bouts of negative emotions more bearable.
Watch this video to understand the art of alone and intentional solitude:
If we can benefit from the deactivation effect (that is, lowering our levels of arousal) simply by spending time alone, does it matter whether we go on social media, during that time, or do something else?
I get asked that question often. The evidence we’ve gathered suggests that browsing on your phone doesn’t cancel out the deactivation effect. However, it takes away a different benefit of spending that time alone without an occupying activity: the opportunity for self-reflection.